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Tuesday, Sep 19, 2017
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Getting A Grip On Writing

LAKE MAGDALENE - Kindergartners pinched their fingers together like crab claws. Four-year-olds moved tiny toys and cotton balls with chopsticks. Although neither class had gotten out pencils and paper, their handwriting lessons had begun. Gone were the chunky pencils that used to be a staple in kindergarten classrooms. Gone were the blank papers with three lines for giant letters. Gone, the school hoped, were tears and frustration. Hillel School introduced Handwriting Without Tears this year, a national program designed to teach writing skills. A private Jewish school, Hillel is using the curriculum for its preschool children, kindergartners and first-graders. It also could extend Handwriting Without Tears throughout elementary school as older children learn cursive writing
It starts with the basics - shapes and hand control. Using tongs and tweezers help children build fine motor skills in their hands. Mimicking crab pincers, index, middle finger and thumb squeezed together, teaches them how to hold a pencil. "The grip is the best thing," said kindergarten teacher Maritza Patet. "Once we have the grip, we can work with the pencils." Before the writing starts, children perfect the shapes that make up letters' curves and lines. Students read books about "Mat Man" and build their own character with supplied shapes. Once they are familiar with the shapes, they use wooden arcs and narrow rectangles to form letters. A dot or smiley face in the upper left corner of practice pages and on chalkboards reminds students where to make the first stroke of most letters. Hillel traded in the fat pencils it used to give young children in exchange for smaller ones. The shorter size is easier for little hands to hold. Traditional classroom writing paper has three lines to guide the top, bottom and middle of the letter. Handwriting Without Tears uses two lines, one for the bottom and one for the middle, forgoing the top line so students learn proportions of upper- and lower-case letters and do not struggle on single-lined paper. Children learn to position the paper whether they are left- or right-handed, and teachers refer to their "helper hand" to hold down the paper while they write with the other one. Otherwise, 5-year-old Madeleine Smith said, "it gets sloppy, and it doesn't look very good." Hillel ordered the curriculum after hearing students were developing bad handwriting habits or tiring easily because they weren't writing properly, said Gloria Berkowitz, division director and primary reading specialist. Some children were confused because they were learning to write in Hebrew, which goes from right to left instead of left to right in English. Some students had gone to tutors and therapists for extra help, prompting the school to look for ways to address the issues in house. "We decided this really could fill a need for us," Berkowitz said. An occupational therapist spent a day training the teachers before Hillel introduced the program. Patet recently got her kindergartners ready to write with singing and dancing. "We're going to do our song where we talk about starting our letters at the top," she told the class. The children sang to the tune "If You're Happy and You Know It," reciting instructions for how to write letters from the top down. They begged Patet for more songs, and she obliged with one about sentence writing that echoed "Yankee Doodle." They bounced to a recording of steel drums as they chanted vowels. The songs reinforce the concepts they learn, Patet said. When students get their workbooks out, they talk about the letters they will practice and what punctuation marks to use with what kinds of sentences. Noah Gamson, 6, said he likes writing sentences the best. Learning to draw letters hasn't been too hard, he said, except for the W's. "I make too much lines," he said.

Reporter Courtney Cairns Pastor can be reached at (813) 865-1503 or cpastor@tampatrib.com.

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